“Temple of the Souls,” a musical about a doomed, Romeo and Juliet romance in 16th century Puerto Rico between a Spanish conquistador’s daughter and a Taino, begins with a thrill. The cast, dressed in the naguas (loincloths), masks and straw headgear of the indigenous people of the island, dance sensuously and athletically to a tuneful melody driven by an infectious beat.
Here’s what that opening number, “Yucahu,” sounded and looked like in rehearsal, which gives just a hint of how exciting it is in performance
These are Taino Souls, they tell us in song, haunting a cave in the rain forest of the El Yunque mountains, a sacred place called the Temple of Souls. It is sacred, we’re told later, because the cave’s walls are full of paintings and carvings that tell the history of the Taino people, a history that climaxed in Spanish discovery, conquest, enslavement and genocide.
Everything about the opening number is promising; it promises an enlightening and entertaining journey through Taino history and culture.
One of those cave paintings, explains a guide leading modern-day tourists in the next scene, recounts the story of the forbidden love between Amada and Guario. “Legend has it that they are the parents to many of us … the blending of two worlds, the Mestizo race of Puerto Rico.”
Little in the nearly two hours (without intermission) that follow the opening number in “Temple of the Souls” quite matches it. The largely predictable story of Amada and Guario is dramatized without much nuance and performed mostly with the kind of exaggerated clarity normally reserved for children’s theater. (I suppose “Temple of the Souls” is appropriate for children, save perhaps for about a minute of fairly explicit lovemaking.) Many of the songs owe less to Puerto Rican culture than to the cult of American Idol, generic pop ballads that end in sustained notes demanding applause.
Still, “Temple of Souls,” one of the 20 full productions in this year’s New York Musical Festival, is worth seeing – and worth developing further – thanks not just to the opening number, but to Enrique Brown’s choreography throughout, the colorful eye-catching visuals by the design team (costume designer Lisa Renee Jordan; projection designer Jan Hartley; scenic designer Jennifer Varbalow; lighting designer Jason Fox), and several stand-out performances, especially Lorraine Velez (not to be confused with her twin sister Lauren Velez) as Amada’s mother, who has been forced to pretend to Amada that she is only her nanny, her Nana, because she is Taino.
It would be difficult to ignore the appeal of Noellia Hernandez as Amada and Andres Quintero as Guario, and hard to help the chills when, in the face of the Spaniards’ cruelty, they sing “Love is stronger than death,” or exclaim: “The mestizo history of Boriken will live on forever.”
Temple of Souls is on stage at Theatre Row through July 23, 2017, as part of the New York Musical Festival.